China Travel Interview: Backpacking for Charity

Culture | by Rebekah Pothaar
Posted: February 25th, 2009 | Updated: September 7th, 2010 | Comments
Quit your job, travel the world, live your dream? Viktoria Orizarska did, falling in love with China and founding a charity along the way. Here, she shares insights on China, traveling solo as a woman, doing good in the world by traveling it, China's matrilineal Mosuo society, learning kung fu at a monastery, getting by with three words of Mandarin and charades, why China reminds her of her native Bulgaria ... and more. What was it like being a single woman traveling on a budget in China? Do you have advice for women wanting to do similar trips? Being a solo female traveler in China is a big advantage. On one hand, no one feels threatened by you which makes you very approachable—both guys and gals are fascinated by your travel style and want to chat, so you are in a very social environment. On the other hand, everyone is always concerned about your security and ability to make it on your own, and so people are constantly  "adopting" you—from walking you 1.5 km to the bus station to lending you ten bucks to pay for your hotel until the banks open in morning. I also must compliment Chinese guys, who are real gentlemen. In my experience, they are very respectful and would rarely make you uncomfortable by staring or catcalling. In fact for the whole two months I spent in China, I only met one guy who bothered me. It was at a bus station in a very touristy area. I used an old trick—loudly announcing my outrage at his indecent proposals and made sure everyone around was informed about it too. He said I was too much trouble and took off. Body language speaks louder than words, so even if you yell in Bulgarian, people will get it. Another tip—I yell in English. Thanks to Hollywood, certain words of dismissal are widely understood. You know what I mean. What was your travel itinerary for China? I loved China so much that I actually returned for second time. I first went in November and then in May. I spent November in Tibet and northwest Sichuan, and a day in Xining, the capital of Quinghai. I spent most of May in Yunnan and stopped in Guilin on the way to Hong Kong. I had originally planned to go back and explore more of Sichuan, but that became impossible after the tragic earthquake. On your blog you wrote an entry 10 Reasons Why China is My Favorite Country. Is this really true of all the countries you have visited or were you exaggerating? It's true indeed. You know what they say—you fall in love when you least expect it. China took me by surprise. Maybe because in the West you mostly hear about the economy, the pollution and the politics—but seeing the human side of China is so refreshing. Also, the nature is stunningly beautiful, again, nothing to do with the gloomy picture of gray, concrete, polluted cities. China is a developed country that hasn’t lost its flavor. It is ancient country with lots of history, but its spirit is young and invigorating. Chinese are proud, but polite and humble people with healthy dreams and aspirations. And the culture is a lot closer to my understanding of Western values and behavior than I have imagined. I felt at home. How about the language barrier? Do you speak Mandarin? How did you get by? I know three words in Mandarin: "hello", "thank you" and "toilet". But language is never a problem. A big smile is worth a thousand words. Besides some people speak English and most people would go out of their way to have a “conversation.” Plus, I'm not a shy girl, and I'm not afraid to use body language charades—from "I need a shampoo," to "I need a toilet." The trickiest one was buying flu medicine. Going through the symptoms was a breeze, but establishing that I needed to take four capsules, three times a day was tricky. You don’t want to overdose on cough medicine. My favorite charade was: "I need to pee, where is the toilet?" The ladies at the hotel were almost rolling on the floor laughing. I read on your blog post, Busride from Hell, that you were attacked by wild dogs while attempting to take a pee at a remote bus stop. Tell me about other dangerous or surprising experiences you had. Well, that was the only time I felt I’d get in trouble. China is a safe place to travel, if you use your common sense of course. There were many times when I though: “Gosh, what am I going to do now?” But every time, there was a kind person who came to the rescue. The one unpleasant thing about traveling in rural China, especially as a woman, was the lack of toilet facilities. And if there were toilets, the lack of privacy took me by surprise. That’s why I got in trouble with the dogs to begin with. What was it like visiting the last practicing matrilineal society in the world at Lugu Lake? Can you comment on Mosuo customs? You think they have some good points? Well, it wasn’t that different from other parts of the world. There were subtle differences. I saw old ladies resting in front of their homes, smoking pipes. I haven’t seen anything like that anywhere else. It seemed that in general, the women are less shy. I spent an afternoon by the lake (Lugu Hu), not far from a group of local ladies that were washing their clothes. One of them took off her top and went knee deep into the water to wash her hair. She didn’t seem worried the slightest that someone from the nearby guesthouses might be snapping a photo. More and more young Mosuo people choose to get married. The tradition, however, is called “walking marriage.” The man comes to visit his wife at night, but in the morning goes back to his mother’s home. Some people confuse the Mosuo tradition with loose morals, but in fact, most Mosuo stay in the same monogamous relationship for their whole life. On a more practical level: guys are not expected to take care of their own children, but are expected to work and help support their sister’s children. So there is no “free” ride for anyone. All family property passes from mother to daughter, so the person that takes care of the children is financially secure and independent. I think that makes a lot of sense. Your story about staying at the kung fu monastery outside Dali was fascinating. Would you recommend this experience to other travelers? Yes, absolutely, if this is your kind of thing. First of all, do you have a genuine interest in martial arts? Second, are you really ready to stay at a monastery with no electricity, basic dorms, bathrooms outside the main building, no hot water, purely vegetarian diet and six to seven hours of training every day? If you can honestly answer yes to both– yes, absolutely, go for it! Bring candles and chocolate, lots of chocolate. You’ll make friends quickly. I also brought some instant coffee, which helped a lot, with the 6 am mornings. Compared to other destinations that you have visited on your trip around the world, what did you find most unique about China? I somehow related to the people instantaneously. Such a different culture, yet so comfortable and welcoming. I’ve met a lot of nice people all over the world, but nowhere else did I feel so at home. I joke that I probably have distant cousins in Sichuan. The Bulgar tribes that established the first medieval kingdom of Bulgaria in year 681are believed to have come from Altai (a mountain range in Central Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan come together). You mentioned on your blog that China reminds you in many ways of Bulgaria. Can you explain how? Other than being distant cousins you mean? *grin* I think the biggest one is that China and Bulgaria share a common political background. Bulgaria was a communist country for 45 years, until 20 years ago, when we started a transition to a Western-style democracy. Bulgaria has been a member of EU for two years now, but a good deal of the urban architecture and most people’s attitudes have been formed in the years of communism. On a less ideological level, Bulgarians tend to move about in couples, yell to each other from across the street, gather big groups around the dinner table and start singing after a few drinks, just like the Chinese do. Smoking everywhere and eating sunflower seeds is another one of those commonalities. The funny thing is that some of those things drive me nuts in Bulgaria, but in China they made me feel at home. Go figure. *grin* What ten items in your backpack did you find most useful for travel in China? You can buy almost anything you need in China half price. Still, the ten things I found most useful:
  1. Vaccinations: can’t say it enough times how important those are!
  2. $100-200 security cash: including a few $1 bills in case you can’t find an ATM.
  3. A headlight: very useful to be able to use both your hands in the dark.
  4. Ziplock bags: great way to organize your pack: from toiletries to dirty socks
  5. Toilet paper: you can buy it everywhere but at the places you need it.
  6. Hand sanitizer: hard to find in China.
  7. A compass: surprisingly useful for orientation in foreign cities.
  8. An electrical converter: so you recharge your camera, laptop, etc.
  9. Sleeping bag: some hotels are clean and warm, others are not.
  10. First aid kit: and first aid training. Hopefully you won’t need it, but it's very useful.
What are some of your favorite lesser-known destinations or sites in China that you were impressed by or that you might recommend to other adventure travelers? My favorite episode in China is bus hopping from place to place in northwest Sichuan, following the Sichuan-Tibet Highway to Chengdu. The rugged mountains of northwest Sichuan are amongst the most stunning and remote views I’ve seen in my life. It may seem strange, but I really enjoyed those 12-hour bumpy bus rides on dirt roads over high mountain passes and along jaw-dropping abysses. For a less extreme option, head to the delightful, albeit touristy Lijiang in northern Yunnan. I also enjoyed spending a week in a Buddhist monastery in Yunnan, where I trained kung-fu with the monks. Sometimes it's not the sights, but the experiences that makes a place special. For example, I was invited for lunch at the home of a lady I met on a day trip to a near by monastery in Yushu (a small town on the border between Quinghai and Sichuan). The monastery was not that impressive, but I will remember forever eating yak stew and tzampa with Lamtzo’s family. What are five things you loved about China and what are five things that you hated? Five loves:  the people, the nature, the no-nonsense attitude, country buses and corner noodle shops. Five hates: the toilets, the limited vegetarian choices, the lack of hot water in hotels (perhaps my budget was too low). That’s it–- only three, but I can’t remember being bothered by anything else. Have you achieved your goal of raising enough on your trip to send 100 girls to school? I am very close to raising enough money to send 100 girls to school for a year. With an upcoming photo show and  fundraiser in Sofia, Bulgaria, I am confident I'll achieve that goal. Now, once those girls are in school, they need to stay there, until they graduate, which is a much larger amount. 100 Girls Back to School has become a life project for me. With a lot of help from friends and kind hearted people I hope to raise that and more. Is your trip over now? What's your future plans? Yes, this trip is over now. I hope there will be other trips in the future, but for the time being I am focused on picking a place to settle down. I am quite busy with the upcoming photo show and finishing a book proposal. I also started evaluating a business idea that I’ve had for years. It is a tough market right now. I spent a lot of time reading the financial news. Your desire to give back to the world community is wonderful and inspiring. In your trip did you meet other travelers with similar ideas? Is this something that could become the future of long-haul travelers—getting sponsors and giving to charity? This is a very well-worded question. I understand why you are not asking if the tourist will get more involved with charities. People go on vacation because they want to relax and have fun. The motivation behind a long-haul trip is quite different–-you go for the adventure and because you want to learn about the world. Naturally, you would get more involved.
I did meet a lot of people that were trying to help–-volunteering, donating or raising money and supporting a child's schooling. Many people I met also donated money to my appeal, because they thought it's a great cause. I don’t know if this is the future of long-haul travel, but I hope more travelers will get involved. You might think that a solo backpacker on a budget can’t help much, but think of the millions of people that travel every year and the collective positive impact they could make.
I'll end with a bit of a silly question: Do you still eat Chinese food? What are your favorite Chinese dishes?
But of course! My favorite dish was a cucumber salad with garlic and spicy sauce that I tried in Yunnan – sadly, don’t know the name. I also really liked momos (TIbetan dumplings) and the hot pot in Sichuan. More about Viktoria Viktoria Orizarska is from Sofia, Bulgaria, but spent seven years working as credit analyst in New York and London. On October 2007, she quit her corporate life and set off on a trip around the world that would last over a year.  She started in London then traveled to Israel, Tibet, Nepal, India, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, China, Venezula, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, New York and Copenhagen. For some time, we've been following her travels on her blog, The World From Vicky's Point of View and The World from Other People's Point of View. She acknowledges that her trip was cheap, partially because she was was budget backpacking, but mostly because she was traveling through some beautiful but really poor countries. No longer willing to be a helpless observer of poverty, she made it one of her goals for the trip to raise enough money to send 100 girls to school by raising funds for Room to Read, a non-profit organization that builds schools and libraries, and provides long-term scholarships to girls in Southeast Asia, India and Nepal.  In a recent Fundraising Photo Auction in New York, Viktoria raised $8,500 for Room to Read by auctioning off her travel photographs. Photos by Viktoria Orizarska from The World From Vicky's Point of View.
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